Your business probably has a Facebook page, and maybe even a Twitter account, but what about an active local profile, such as on Google+ Local, Yelp or FourSquare? If you’re not using your local profiles to get customers to “check in” to your establishment and write reviews about your business, you’re missing a large marketing opportunity. In fact, by being active on your online local profiles you have the power to engage, retain and attract offline customers for little or no cost.  

Having an active local profile puts your business on the map, literally. For example, a customer can use Yelp or FourSquare to search for nearby restaurants, hair salons, clothing boutiques, etc. If you have a local profile on those sites, your restaurant’s information will appear in the results. People can opt to get driving directions to your location. And being present on Google+ Local is directly related to Google Maps, which is a very important place for any business to be found.

Once at your business, customers can “check in” on certain local platforms such as Yelp, FourSquare and Facebook, which means they are sharing where they are with their local community. Gaining check-ins gives your business a few valuable benefits. First, it allows you to see exactly who is coming to your business so you know if you are marketing to the right people. Check-ins can also impact your online rankings. The more check-ins you have, the higher your ranking may be.

After someone has done business with you, they can also write a review within the local platform. While the idea of public reviews can seem scary to business owners, they really are a great marketing tool. Obviously, good reviews encourage others to do business with you. But even negative reviews can turn positive because you have the opportunity to reach out to the community and correct the negative experience. Often, how you handle and turn around the negative experience carries more weight than the negative review itself.

So while online local profiles can seem like “just one more thing to manage,” they really do have a large business impact and can greatly influence your offline business activity. To make the most of your local online profiles, here are a few key strategies:

1. Claim your listing on the major local platforms: Google+ Local, Yelp and FourSquare.

If you do nothing else, at least claim your listings on the local platforms. Doing so will help your overall online rankings. Notice that the suggestion is to “claim” your listing, not “create” it. Chances are that your business is already listed (even if you never personally created the listing). How? Often, when customers want to check out a business but can’t find the business listed, they simply create the listing themselves. Google also creates business listings automatically based on information available online. Therefore, do a search for your business on the local platforms. When you find your listing, click the button that says, “Is this your business?” and complete the verification process. When you’re verified your business can be ranked higher in searches.

You want to be proactive in this process and manage your listing to ensure that the information shown for your establishment is accurate. If you leave the listing claiming and/or creation step to customers, they may misspell the business’s name, miscategorize it or include inaccurate information. If there’s currently no listing for your business, create one.

2. Find out which local platforms your customers use most.

With your listings created and/or claimed, you can decide which local site(s) to devote your attention to. The best way to decide is to ask customers which sites they use most. If your business is one that has lots of direct interaction between staff and customers, which full-service restaurants typically do, encourage your staff to ask people directly. For example, if they notice a customer checking in on their smart phone, they can say, “Oh great, you’re checking in. Which site are you using? We’re trying to decide which site is best and would love to know what you prefer to use.” Likewise, if your staff sees someone taking a photo of their food or an article of clothing, chances are they are going to post it somewhere. Find out where. Engage the customer in conversation, as that’s the best market research you can get.

Tips for interacting, posting

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You’ll quickly find that there is a group of people who embrace the culture of journaling their life online via check-ins and photo sharing. These people usually feel happy and appreciated when they get asked questions about it or acknowledged for doing so because they’re doing it out of their own interest. So don’t worry about being obtrusive or appearing nosey. If you approach it from the mindset of engaging customers so you can better serve them, they’ll be happy to talk about their online preferences.

You may also wish to post a sign reminding customers to check in at your location. Yelp and FourSquare in particular have many marketing items you can get for free, including window stickers and QR codes, to educate and remind people.

3. Watch your local profiles and interact with your customers there.

To get the most from your local profile, you need to manage it. Train your managers to check the profiles daily or at least once a week to respond to new reviews. If there’s a negative review, you want to reply immediately to the customer to turn the situation around.

For example, if a customer writes that they received poor service, apologize for the service, assure them that’s not your company’s culture, and offer them an incentive to return and try you again. When others see how you handled the negative comment, they’ll see it as an isolated incident and not the norm. Conversely, if they see negative reviews with no resolution, they’ll think you don’t really care about customers.

Likewise, when you receive positive reviews, thank the person for visiting and encourage them to return. Use compliments as an opportunity to reinforce your brand and your company’s image in the community.

4. Post an offer.

Incentivize people to check in, post a picture or interact in some other way by offering a discount or other perk. Some ideas include a free appetizer, 10 percent off a meal, a double punch on a loyalty card or anything else that would be of value to your customers. Realize that for most people, their smartphone is an extension of their personality, and it’s something they carry with them at all times. When your incentive pops up on their app, that’s a way of keeping your company in front of your customers and they will take action, especially if they feel rewarded for doing so.

Using local platforms to engage and interact with customers is a way to influence offline behavior using online channels. For many people, it’s a new way to look at online marketing, especially since it’s not designed to generate online sales. Therefore, you need to view it as one component of a comprehensive promotional strategy. When you embrace online local marketing as a tool to influence offline sales, you’ll reap the rewards of an integrated marketing campaign.

Allison Nuanes is the director of off-site Promotions at Volume 9 Inc. She focuses on identifying opportunities for brands to expand their footprint online.